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COLUMN: Is it still ‘art’ with artificial intelligence?

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I’m terrible at making art.

I probably have the artistic ability of a five-year-old, drawing stick men and the like, but I can usually colour within the lines in a colouring book, so I’m not completely without talent.

My wife, on the other hand, is quite a creative artist and I envy what she can make every day.

However, being a photographer helps me feel a little better about myself when it comes to creating art. I usually know what I want to capture and how I want to capture it when I pick up my camera.

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I also know that I have a wild imagination. If only I could express that somehow, because making photos is almost always about capturing the real world and not the make-believe that resides in my head.

And then I noticed a friend posting these fantastical images on social media that looked too good to be true, worlds that could only have come from an imagination like my own. The characters and scenes that he had made were so true-to-life that it was hard to dismiss it sometimes as completely make-believe.

That was my first introduction to AI art — pictures that are generated through artificial intelligence (AI) software. Basically, digital images created out of thin air from a text prompt.

The user — or “artist” — types in a description of a scene that they wish to create, using as many or as little descriptive words as desired, and the software then builds that scene using an algorithm based on formulaic algebra. And within minutes … voila! You are presented with a piece of “art” that was created by machine learning.

The computer algorithms are written to “learn” a specific aesthetic by analyzing countless thousands of images across the internet, and the algorithm tries to generate a completely new image that adheres to the aesthetics it has learned.

Using this new technology has been a wildly entertaining rabbit hole I’ve fallen into, and it can be addictive for some who have a bit of time and an endless imagination.

But is it really art?

This is a question that researchers and artists alike have been wrestling with for years.

I do see it as an art form, as the algorithms and the computing power could be interpreted as being no different than the tools a traditional artist uses, such as a canvas, brush and paints.

The art is just in a different physical form, and what is driving the results in both the case of the painter and the person like myself using a computer, is the imagination of that person.

This isn’t a new argument. Decades ago, the same was said about the use of PhotoShop to create and alter images, and since that time graphic art has mostly become the byproduct of algorithms used by software.

I do feel bad for graphic artists, though, as AI art will probably become so commonplace, that it will do away with a large chunk of the industry, as clients will be generating their own artwork to create advertisements, event posters and other media that was once the domain of talented and experienced artisans.

There are upsides, of course. Musicians, many of whom struggle financially in our new economy, can now create their own record album covers and posters to promote their shows.

Artists themselves can use the technology to physically map out a design or vibe of what they see in their head even before picking up a paint brush or pencil.

And, of course, the “artistically handicapped” people like myself can endlessly express themselves without worry about their inabilities to harness the hand-eye co-ordination required to accurately transfer thought to canvas.

Now excuse me while I get back to creating my steampunk Star Wars characters and disco Muppets.

Kevin Lamb is a local photojournalist whose work often appears on BarrieToday. 

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